January 23, 2008

I've followed the story for a long time, but as of this Monday night, World Wrestling Entertainment has converted its programming over to HD.

WWE RAW on the USA Network, ECW on Sci Fi, and Friday Night Smackdown on The CW will all now be aired with high-definition feeds, as well as WWE pay-per-view events, starting with Sunday's Royal Rumble. The CW had been looking to upgrade Smackdown for a while, in its effort to transition all its programming to HD. Meanwhile, both USA and Sci Fi are using the transition amidst their creation of dedicated HD channels.

WWE provides an FAQ section on HD, as well as a story on their site detailing some of the last minute struggles for the production team to get prepared for the first HD broadcast of WWE television.

As their press release and the article mentions, the WWE made a variety of technical changes in preparation, including a new set, new equipment, new production trucks, new video packages, and some tweaks in the way the show is presented.

This finally confirmed the rumors that began surfacing at the beginning of the new television season (see here) about WWE's plans to transition in the coming months, and the company is currently looking into the best way to distribute its PPV events on HD DVD, trying to decide which format to go with.

The WWE began testing back in 2006, at which time they realized just how many changes they would have to make in production to create a superior production feel for their show.

I'm interested to see numbers on how well the WWE does in HD, both in the high-definition feeds as well as the PPV and DVD released of their big events in high-definition. Perhaps this will answer some of the questions originally raised by Bruce Leichtman, who posited that HD wouldn't matter as much to the pro wrestling fan base. Back in May, I wrote:

What caught my attention, though, was the comments from Bruce Leichtman of Leichtman Research, one of those people who seem to creep into many TVWeek stories on HD. Leichtman was attributed as saying that the programming might not immediately benefit WWE fans and that, while many initial offerings appeal to an upscale audience, the WWE "has more of a downscale appeal." This was not a direct quote to Leicthman, but I'm assuming it isn't too far off the mark. [ . . . ] In the same story, WWE's Gary Davis was paraphrased as emphasizing that "fans include doctors, lawyers and accountants as well as construction workers. Research cited by WWE indicates typical viewers are actually more likely to purchase an HDTV than the average U.S. adult." [ . . . ] I'd agree with Davis here, in that wrestling might draw particularly well among blue-collar households, minorities, the lower educated, etc., but it is also consistently one of the most popular shows on cable television and flagship programs of the three networks it airs on (CW, USA, and Sci Fi, when it comes to ratings). In my own observations, there are scores of high-income wrestling families. Further, because wrestling draws on a sports mentality, I would think that viewers would be especially interested in seeing it in high-definition.

See Leichtman's elaboration on these points when I interviewed him in June for the blog here.

I said at the time that my major concern was more how the WWE can keep the allusion of its in-ring performances in HD, but on first view, it seems that they have dealt with that well, as the more defined picture didn't take away from the illusion of the performance.

On a final note, though, I was struck when watching WWE commentator Jim Ross talk about the initial broadcast in HD with a memory of a 1985 NWA World Championship Wrestling show from TBS, in which commentators David Crockett and Tony Schiavone kept reminding viewers throughout the episode that they were getting their wrestling for the first time "in stereo." I'm sure there will come a time in which bragging about high-definition will seem old hat, but one thing's for sure: WWE will get all the mileage they can about the significance of making the transition.